Tooley Street, SE1
Running parallel to the River Thames on it southern bank from the point where it joins Montague Close under the arch of London Bridge up to St Saviour’s Dock in the east, Tooley Street has undergone a considerable transformation in recent years with a range of restaurants to suit all tastes, if not all pockets.
I had fondly imagined that this thoroughfare, which once bustled with traffic moving goods to and from the docks to the City of London, was named after some Irishman or other named Tooley. But not a bit of it.
It appears, at least if the maps of the area dating from around the 17th and 18th centuries are to be believed, to be a corruption of the name of St Olave’s church which had stood a little to the east of the then London Bridge. The early cartographers, including John Rocque, record its name as Synt Toulus and other variants are Toulas, Toolis and Toolies. How it came about is anybody’s guess. Prior to that the street appeared in a Woodcut map, dating to around 1561, as Barms Street and in the 17th century was known as Short Southwark.
The church, which is referred to in the Doomsday book of 1086, had a chequered history and by 1736 part of it had fallen down and the rest was on the verge of collapse, principally because graves had been dug too near its foundations. The parishioners raised enough money to build a more substantial church in Portland stone with a square tower and by 1740 it had reclaimed its position as a principal landmark in the area.
Disaster struck on 19th August 1843 when fire broke out in the premises of an oilman near Topping’s Wharf, adjacent to the church, spread to the roof of St Olave’s and destroyed the interior and its bells, although the tower remained standing.
Thank heavens for insurance!
The money from the insurers was sufficient for the church to be rebuilt but it was eventually demolished in 1926 to make way for the headquarters of the Hay’s Wharf Company in what is now St Olave’s House.
With so much riparian industry, shoddy construction and unsafe work practices, fires were commonplace in the area. Some had catastrophic consequences. The Cyclopaedia of Insurance reported that in July 1731 a pot of boiling was overturned, causing a fire which destroyed a large number of vessels on the Thames, a case of setting the Thames on fire.
More famously, on 22nd June 1861 fire broke out in a warehouse in Tooley Street’s Cotton Wharf, raging for two days and not fully extinguished until a fortnight had passed. Many buildings in the area were destroyed in what was one of the capital’s largest conflagrations in the 19th century. One of the consequences of the fire was the passing of the Metropolitan Fire Act in 1865 and the creation of the first publicly funded fire brigade in the capital.
In the 16th century the street boasted a pillory into which fraudulent traders were displayed to public ridicule or worse and a cage to hold drunken and disorderly people, who had been arrested at an hour too late for them to be imprisoned, were held until they had sobered up.
Poverty was never too far away from Tooley Street. Eric Blair aka George Orwell stayed in what was known as a kip on Tooley Street from 19th September until 8th October 1931 while he was carrying out his researches for the book, Down and Out in Paris and London, which he wrote in Bermondsey Library further down the street.
And to end on a literary note, Samuel Pepys gives us an evocative picture of the area in his Diaries when he was forced to walk in a storm in the winter of 1665 – 6 because there was no river transport available; “it was dangerous to walk the streets, the bricks and tiles falling from the houses..we could see no boats in the Thames afloat but what were broke loose and carried through the bridge. the greatest sight of all was among other parcels of ships driven hither and thither in clusters together, one was quite overset, and lay with her masts all along in the water, and her keel above water.”.
Poor Samuel. I’m sure he was glad to get to his bed that night.